I'm no Anthony Bourdain who goes seeking out the most bizarre and flashy food experiences possible, but if you put it in front of me, I'll try anything once. Tongue salami, sure. Dry-aged beef, definitely. Sweetbreads, why not? But for sheer strangeness, I've got to go with octopus terrine.I think part of what made this experience so strange is that I saw the terrine being made from start to finish. I was in culinary school at the time and we were deep into Italian cooking. As soon as the chef-instructor saw that we'd received an octopus in our box of ingredients, his eyes lit up.
He gathered all of us around and said, "Ok, we can make what the recipe says we should make [wiggles fingers dismissively toward our binders] or we could make..." He lowered his voice and looked each of us in the eye, "Terrine of octopus!"
Of course we made the terrine of octopus.
I wasn't in charge of that recipe, so I don't know every step that went into it. I do know that the whole octopus was first boiled in a court bouillon. It went into the pot looking pale and limp, and it came out of the pot a while later with its tentacles curled as tight as hair rollers and its skin flushed a deep eggplant purple. It was simultaneously bizarre and beautiful.
The tentacles were removed from the body, pulled straight again, and packed into a terrine mold, possibly with some herbs in between the layers. The top was weighted with a brick and the whole affair was put in the cooler to age with a big note saying, "Save for Monday/Italian - DO NOT TOUCH!"
A few days later, we unmolded our creation. To be honest, it looked quite a bit like a stage prop from a science fiction movie and certainly nothing to get as excited about as our chef seemed to be. The tentacles had gelled together into a solid purple brick. We could see them curling around each other, the suckers glistening in the glare from the fluorescent lights. It might have even jiggled slightly as one of us nervously brushed the table.
Our chef took a knife and hovered over the terrine. Then he darted in and started slicing it into delicate wafer-thin pieces. When he was done, he grabbed a serving platter and laid the slices out in a complex, geometric design. He sprinkled them with sea salt and fresh pepper, and sent one of us down to the store room for olive oil - "the good olive oil." When he was done, he stepped back and crossed his arms in satisfaction.
And yes, it was beautiful. Gone was the impression of an alien lying in wait. Gone were the intimidating tubes of purple. Gone was the octopus itself. Sliced cross-wise as he had done, we could see that the purple skin covered pearly white flesh. The tentacles were so tightly interlocked that the slices looked like perfectly stitched fabric.
We all reached in and took a slice. First, I tasted the olive oil (it really was the good stuff). Then the texture hit me - chewy, but not unpleasant, and silky from the combination of oil and gelatin. And finally, as I swallowed it down, I tasted the barest hint of briny ocean. It was gone so quickly I thought I might have imagined it. It was light, alluring, and unlike anything else I'd ever tasted.
The plate wasn't empty by the time we went back to our normal classwork and some of us certainly liked it better than others, but that octopus terrine definitely made an impression. It's not something that I'd recommend running out to make at home, but hey, if it's put in front of you, it's definitely worth a try.
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(Image: Emma Christensen for the Kitchn)